Netanyahu holds meeting on Ukraine, said to look at providing military aid

Growing body of officials said in favor of enabling weapons aid in face of Russian warning

Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 13, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 13, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

For the first time since resuming office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a discussion Tuesday on Israel’s policy regarding aid to Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion and war, his office said.

The statement said the meeting included Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, Mossad chief David Barnea, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, Foreign Ministry Director-General Ronen Levy, Netanyahu’s military secretary Avi Gil, and others.

Hebrew media reported that the meeting discussed the option of providing military assistance to Ukraine, which has long been lobbying Israel for weapons and in particular air defense systems. Kyiv has expressed frustration that its requests have so far been rebuffed.

The US has also been pushing Israel to increase its support, apparently with weapons, according to reports. Western countries have poured weapons into the Ukrainian military as it holds up the Russian advance.

During the meeting, the National Security Council presented Ukraine’s demands, its expectations of receiving Israeli air defense systems, and the sensitive nature of relations with Russia, Ynet reported without citing sources.

Israel is prepared to give Ukraine a rocket early warning system and assist the country in clearing landmines, according to the report.

Walla cited an unnamed Israeli official as saying there is a growing group within the security and intelligence establishment that believes Israel should approve military aid to Ukraine in a manner that would not cause tension with Russia, such as allowing a third country to supply certain Israeli systems. The report did not say which country or what specific hardware would be offered.

Israel has resisted providing weapons to Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion in February 2022. One major reason for Israel’s hesitance appears to be its strategic need to maintain freedom of operations in Syria, where Russian forces largely control the airspace.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein (L), Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky (C) and National Unity MK Ze’ev Elkin meet in Kyiv on February 20, 2023. (Yuli Edelstein/Twitter)

Last month, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party and an opposition MK issued a call for Israel to increase its support for Ukraine, after visiting President Volodymyr Zelensky during a trip to Kyiv.

“Israel must meaningfully expand its support for Ukraine,” Likud’s Yuli Edelstein and National Unity MK Ze’ev Elkin said in a joint statement.

“We support tangible cooperation between Israel and Ukraine in air defense and missile defense and in more defensive measures,” they said they told the Ukrainian leader.

Their call was one of the first by lawmakers — in the coalition or the opposition — for Israel to take a more unequivocal position on the matter. Edelstein is the chair of the Knesset’s high-level Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and Elkin is a highly respected political operator. Both were born in Ukraine.

Days later, Zelensky urged Israel to “choose a side — the Ukrainian side.”

At the beginning of February, Russia warned Israel against supplying weapons to Ukraine.

“We say that all countries that supply weapons [to Ukraine] should understand that we will consider these [weapons] to be legitimate targets for Russia’s armed forces,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters.

The warning came after Netanyahu said in an interview with CNN that he was “looking into” providing Ukraine with “other kinds of aid.”

Reports in the proceeding weeks said that Israel has refused requests from the US to hand over ten Hawk anti-aircraft batteries and hundreds of interceptor missiles for delivery to Ukraine.

However, The New York Times reported in January that the US military was quietly shipping hundreds of thousands of artillery shells to Ukraine from a massive stockpile it stores in Israel.

Ukrainian self-propelled howitzer fires towards Russian forces at the frontline near Bakhmut, Ukraine, March 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

As the war progressed, Israel has increasingly insisted that it is in fact on Ukraine’s side, providing over $22.5 million in humanitarian aid and setting up a field hospital to treat wounded Ukrainians in the early days of the war. Last month, it voted alongside 140 other countries for a UN General Assembly resolution drafted by Kyiv calling for Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine.

Israel’s refusal to send weapons has contributed to the perception that the Jewish state has staked out a neutral position on the war.

In the first months of the war, Israel sought to use its unique position enabled by its close working ties with both Russia and Ukraine to serve as a mediator between the parties. Then-prime minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow and held a series of calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelensky over a span of several weeks.

However, the effort failed to bear fruit and Bennett shelved the initiative altogether as his own political position at home worsened. Netanyahu pledged before entering office to review Israel’s position and also speculated that he could be called on to mediate between the sides, as Bennett tried to do.

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